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Second Hand Low

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: May 16, 2012


Matt LessingerHere’s a preflop scenario that comes up frequently in no-limit hold’em cash games: Player A raises from middle position. Player B calls to his left. Player C is in late position and puts in a reraise, and the action is folded back around to Player A. We will assume that they are all somewhat knowledgeable players, and that none of them is overly loose or tight.

Everyone in this hand could have a fairly wide range. Player A might have raised because he was the first one into the pot and had a playable hand such as K-J or 5-5, but it’s certainly possible that he has pocket aces or kings and just happened to be first in. Player C might have reraised with a marginal hand because he was attempting a squeeze play, but likewise it’s possible that he has pocket aces or kings and just happened to be in a good reraising position.

Player B is the one whose range should typically be the weakest. He specifically chose not to reraise and isolate the player to his right, which usually is a sign of a speculative hand. With a strong hand, we can assume that he would usually want to get heads-up in position with Player A, rather than let other players in behind him for a relatively cheap price.

Given that Player B flat-called and Player C reraised, if Player A folds, then Player B will usually fold as well. Most players in Player B’s situation know better than to call a reraise from out of position in a heads-up pot with a marginal hand. But once in a while, you will see Player B unexpectedly put in a second reraise, sometimes even all-in. This has probably happened from time to time in your game. The question is: If you’re in Player C’s shoes, what sort of range do you now assign to Player B?

There is a specific poker play that is referred to as “Second Hand Low,” which is a phrase adopted from bridge. The idea is that if Player B has a hand such as pocket aces or kings, he flat-calls Player A’s raise in the hopes that someone behind him will sense weakness and reraise. Then, when the action gets back to him, he can lower the boom and push all-in, and it will look suspicious enough that he might get action.

In general, poker is a cyclical game. Certain plays fall in and out of fashion, and this is one of them. Ten years ago I remember this play being quite fashionable. In fact, it reached the point where it was attempted so often that Player B rarely got action when he moved all-in.

Naturally, that got me to thinking about whether a bluff in that spot would be a plus EV play, assuming that Player C was not the type who would reraise with only pocket aces or kings. Player B would often pick up very decent-sized pots uncontested whenever he pulled the trigger on the second reraise, so I started doing it without premium hands. Occasionally I’d run into a monster, but much more often I’d pick up a sizable pot without seeing a flop.

Clearly, I was not the only one who made that observation. Fast forward to today, and I see a whole different phenomenon. Exactly six times in the past few months, I have seen an identical pattern. The action starts out the same: Player A opens for a raise, Player B calls, Player C reraises, and everyone folds around to Player A, who folds. Most of the time, Player B also folds as expected. But six times that I can remember, I’ve seen Player B shove all-in for a substantial amount, and all six times, Player C snap-called him!

That’s not all. In all six cases, Player C was correct to call! Ten years ago, or perhaps even more recently, I’m quite sure that Player C would almost always be trailing, given the hands with which he called. Only twice were the hands, in my opinion, both legitimate. One time Player B shoved with Q-Q and Player C snap-called with K-K, and obviously I’ve got no real problem with that. Another time Player B shoved with J-J and Player C called with A-K, which is a little looser but still understandable in today’s live games. Twice, I saw Player C call with A-K and Player B was holding a low pocket pair, so while he was slightly behind, it turned out he was correct to call both times.

Here are the ones that blew my mind. In two separate instances Player C made the call with pocket eights. And both times, Player B happened to have A-K, which is the only realistic hand that Player C could have hoped to be ahead of. In both cases, Player C seemed like a reasonable player, yet to call a large all-in reraise in that spot with pocket eights is pretty awful. But he happened to be right, and in both cases the eights held up, so I guess the joke’s on me.

There’s definitely something to be learned there. Remember when I said poker is a cyclical game? Maybe it’s time for the next step in the cycle. Player B used to get too much respect when he made the “Second Hand Low” play. Now it appears that he doesn’t get any respect at all. Given the hands that Player B has shown up with recently, maybe he doesn’t deserve any.

Now might be the time to go back to making the play with premium hands like pocket aces or kings. Except, unlike ten years ago, I like the chances that you’ll get action from Player C holding a worse hand. If Player C is snap-calling with hands like 8-8 and A-K, he’s going to get a real wake-up call when you show up with A-A or K-K.

It’s always possible that I’m putting too much weight on the hands that I’ve personally witnessed. Six hands is a pretty low sample size from which to draw any strong conclusions. Still, it’s pretty clear that internet poker changed the way people view all-in shoves, and that perception has carried over to live games too. Since all-ins now happen so much more frequently, they generally get less respect in general, so I expect they would also get less respect in the Second Hand Low scenario. It’s up to you to see if you can take advantage of that. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at